Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Dad on Fire

Many, many Christmases ago, when we lived in India and I was in high school, my dad got a video camera. One of those enormous ones that used tapes. He got it a couple months before Christmas, and proceeded to film every waking minute of our lives.

I have to say, I appreciate it now, because, well, life in India is the kind of thing you want to have a record of. I will find pictures and post them. It'd be fun to dig up those moments. But at the time, oh, how we got sick of it.

See, it wouldn't have been such a big deal if I hadn't been so insanely self-conscious. If I hadn't been one of those girls who starved and exercised herself down to 100 lbs and still thought she had the fattest thighs around. If I wasn't terrified of anyone seeing me without makeup. Or in a bad moment. Or in bad light. Or an outfit that made me look fat/pale/short...you name it. You get the picture. Ridiculously insecure.

And so, knowing I'd be on film all day long, I got up at 6 am Christmas morning, so that I could shower, and put on my make-up, and get dressed up. We had a very dear family friend named Dallas spending Christmas with us, as he usually did, and so there he was, stuck on film with my family. All day long.

By that evening, when it was time for Christmas dinner, we were tired and sullen. We were sick of performing. We were sick of answering stupid questions for the camera.

So I invite you to picture this. A dinner table, set for five, with a Christmas feast. There is food galore. My dad is at the head of the table, behind the camera, asking questions. I am to his right. I have, oh, perhaps 8 peas on my plate, and maybe half a potato. It's about as much as I am willing to eat for dinner in high school.

And since my dad is stuck behind the camera, this night it doesn't turn into an argument. An argument that is the only one he cannot win, because he cannot force me to eat more, and he cannot force me to exercise less. Back then, back then I thought it was about the size of my thighs. It took me years to realize it was about control. But I digress.

So I am seated to the right of my dad, picking veeeery slowly at my peas. My brother is to his immediate left. He's 14, a slightly awkward teenager, trying to be obliging, in an I-wish-you-would-leave-me-alone way. My mother is seated next to my brother, and she is sitting there avoiding questions by shoveling food into her mouth. And next to her, at the far end of the table, is our lovely house guest Dallas.

My dad turns to me. "How are you enjoying your Christmas, Lis?"

I spear a single, solitary pea. "It's fine."

"That's great! How about you, son? That food on your plate looks delicious! What are you eating?"

"Turkey and stuffing. Same thing we always eat on Christmas."

The camera stops on Betty, who keeps up a steady fork to mouth rhythm, leaving no possibility of an on-camera question.

And so, finally, my dad begins to focus entirely on Dallas. This year Dallas has the weighty responsibility of carrying the entire Christmas dinner conversation. Fortunately, he is a very old friend, practically family. He already knows our quirks, although perhaps this year we are a little more unfiltered than one might expect. He isn't fazed, however. He laughs a lot, he tells great stories, he's charming. This year, he'd recently taken a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. His journey was fascinating.

"So, Dallas, where was the first place in Russia that the train stopped?"

Dallas obliged. Honestly, his story was great. We were all listening, we just weren't participating.

And then my father, for some reason, decided to back up. I don't know if he wanted to get a shot of the whole table, and needed to back away from it to do so. But in any case, he backed straight into the candelabra on the credenza and set his sweater on fire.

The last thing you see and hear on this tape is the following.

My dad (camera still running) yells, "Oh my God! I'm on fire!"

Cut to a shot of me looking briefly at my dad, and then calmly across the table at my brother and saying, "Can you please pass the salt?"

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